A mind for music

Infancy’s Symphony | Photo by Carey Wolinsky

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There are very few activities for which your birthday suit and a three-piece suit are equally appropriate attire. Music is one of them.

Belting an improvised ditty alone in the shower and performing Handel’s “Messiah” on stage with a full choral ensemble and orchestra both qualify as “song.” Simple or intricate, practiced or spontaneous, individual or collective, highbrow or honky-tonk—music covers the gamut. And though instruments aren’t instrumental, they are welcome and multifarious. Bells, drums, strings, woodwinds, harps or horns can certainly spice up a tune. (Though a Stradivarius may not survive a shower.)

But music’s broad scope doesn’t stop with its production. More fascinating than how people make music (and greater mysteries, perhaps) are why people make it, why others listen and how a beat of any sort can have such a profound impact on the body and the brain.

Coos and ahs exchanged by moms and babies around the globe may form a musical conversation that lays the groundwork for language, some scientists now propose. That notion joins others—including the desire to impress mates and the drive to build social bonds—in suggesting an evolutionary source of chanteys, dirges and ballads. Others see music as a pleasing diversion, and research shows that emotionally charged music—whether moving a person to tears of joy or calling forth memories of a failed romance—appears to activate the brain’s reward circuitry. And while listening to music brings on an emotional rush, playing music may provide a mental boost. It turns out that musical training has benefits to the tune of improved under standing of grammatical rules and sharper auditory perception.

Though music’s tendency to get charged with cultural, religious and emotional meaning may complicate things for scientists seeking its roots and benefits, it’s that same tendency that makes pursuing the “what,” “why” and “how” of music worthwhile.


Birth of the beat
Birth of the beat
By Bruce Bower

Music’s roots may lie in melodic exchanges between mothers and babies.

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More than a feeling
More than a feeling
By Susan Gaidos

Emotionally evocative, yes, but music goes much deeper.

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Music of the hemispheres
Music of the hemispheres
By Rachel Ehrenberg

Playing instruments gives brains a boost.

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Seeking a definition
Seeking a definition
By Elizabeth Quill

Whether strummed by a guitarist who has gone platinum or sung by a mom who is playing with her child, music at its most basic level is a sequence of notes that can vary in a number of ways.

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Not just a pleasant sound
Not just a pleasant sound
By Elizabeth Quill

SIDEBAR: When people use music to share stories, comfort peers or worship gods, it takes on new meaning. Music’s roles vary depending on time and place.

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Music on your brain
Music on your brain
By Science News Staff

Music lights up almost every area of the brain, which shouldn’t be a surprise since it makes people tap their feet, encourages the recollection of vivid memories and has the potential to lighten the mood.

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Ancient boar-head carnyx
Evidence of ancient roots
By
Elizabeth Quill

Though early hominids may have made sweet sounds by banging sticks and stones together, the oldest distinguishable instrument dates to 40,000 years ago.

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Songs from the Stone Age
Moody Tunes
By Science News Staff

To explore the effect that music has on the mind, Science News asked researchers to share a song they enjoy and the emotion it evokes.

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Songs from the Stone Age
By Bruce Bower

No one knows for sure whether music played a key role in human evolution or came about as a kind of ear candy. But there are several scientifically inspired proposals for the origins of music

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Take two stanzas and call me in the morning
Take two stanzas and call me in the morning
By Rachel Ehrenberg

From poets to politicians, people have long described music as medicine for the heart and soul. Now scientists are taking a literal look at such musings, investigating music as a means to alleviate pain and enhance recovery. Though some studies are still in the early stages, your favorite soundtrack may one day accompany a prescription.

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